Reishi: An Ancient Medicinal Mushroom

Learn how the long-revered reishi mushroom has found its way into modern medical research, trendy lattes, and backyard gardens.

| March / April 2018

My boots press into an emerald moss carpet as I scan an old-growth log for shiny, red, fan-shaped shelf mushrooms — the reishi. Medicinal reishis grow all over the world: from Europe to Asia, from South America to this quiet Pacific Northwest conifer grove. Anyone on a hike in late summer has likely seen them without realizing that these are the mushrooms believed by ancient Chinese emperors to grant immortality. I wish that, like the emperors, I could summon a court sorcerer to help me find them.

In 219 B.C., Emperor Qin Shihuangdi sent his sorcerer, Xu Fu, east from Xi’an on a quest for the “mushroom of immortality.” It was never found, and some said it was a sign that the emperor had lost the mandate of heaven. In ancient China, reishis symbolized health, good fortune, longevity, and even divinity. Emperors bore ruyi, royal scepters crowned with the curling, fan-shaped fungus. Medical practitioners served elixirs in dainty ceramic cups painted with reishis, and they ascribed to the fungi an unbelievable range of health benefits. In Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), reishis are believed to boost qi (life force) and they’re prescribed for both mind- and body-oriented health issues.

“When dried in the shade, powdered, and taken by the inch-square spoonful, they produce genie-hood,” recorded Daoist alchemist Ge Hong in his third-century text, Baopuzi. Of course today’s superfood industry doesn’t make quite such bold claims.

Mushroom Medical Research

Although they have not (yet) proven to be an elixir of immortality, medicinal reishis are still a big business. In a news release from Zion Market Research, it was estimated the global mushroom market, including reishis, was valued at $35.08 billion in 2015, and that number is expected to climb in the coming years. A quick search at my local health-food store uncovered reishi-filled capsules, powders, teas, extracts, and chocolate elixirs. Few companies dare to make specific health claims regarding this fungi, and those that do add plenty of asterisks. As of writing this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not approved any mushrooms for use as medicine. So for now, despite ongoing research, my reishi-infused hot chocolate may not really imbue me with anything more genie-like than relaxation.

However, in another 10 years, it might be advertised as “anti-cancer cocoa.” Although still not substantial enough to state any direct or official claims, much reishi research in the last decade has focused on the mushroom’s potential ability to slow or even halt tumor growth. Several in vitro studies, including a 2017 study by the National Cancer Institute in Naples, Italy, have found bioactive compounds in reishis to be effective growth inhibitors against a range of cancer cells including prostate, colorectal, breast, cervical, lung, and melanoma.

Of these compounds, possibly the best-researched are polysaccharides, which interact with our immune receptors. Reishis have an abundance of water-soluble β-D-glucans, which some studies have shown are absorbed by our bodies through the digestive tract before entering the lymphatic system. This is coincidentally a pathway of qi, and here they appear to activate macrophages, T-cells, and other tumor-killing parts of the immune system.

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